GET OUT: Sweet Suffering

By on August 31, 2016

The perils of exploring Greater Yellowstone reveal themselves.

The jury is still out on this one: Is the suffering worth the reward in Hoodoo Basin? (Photo: Matt Berman)

The jury is still out on this one: Is the suffering worth the reward in Hoodoo Basin? (Photo: Matt Berman)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Adventurous souls are used to going anywhere they please. But there are several ways the mountains aim to keep people away. Which is nice. I wouldn’t want every far away place to be overvisited all the time. For example, every fall I’m reminded that this is practically the last time I can visit some of the far-out places in the Greater Yellowstone Area until the following year. Even gliding over them in skis is a different experience than hiking over them in the summer.

Hoodoo Basin, in far eastern Yellowstone, is a place I’ve been trying to get to for years. Several things have kept me out. For one, it’s a long, long trail. So, even if someone is committed to walking close to 50 miles round trip, they might not always have the amount of time off necessary to undertake such a task. I usually don’t.

But this year I did. I found myself with six days off at the end of August. So I went for it. As I glanced at the trail map (most of the way down the Lamar River, then a left up Miller Creek), I thought I saw that the thin dirt trail would parallel the creeks and rivers the whole way. So I limited the amount of weight I was carrying by bringing along less water than I usually did. I figured I’d just fill up more often, pumping my water whenever I needed it, and stopping to fish for a while. Wrong.

While the trail in fact does follow the creek, most of the way the hiker is far above it and out of the way. So unless I hiked well off trail in search of it, which I didn’t feel like doing because that would add miles to an already ridiculously long trip, I’d actually be spending miles and miles of hiking without coming anywhere near a creek.

What made that lack of water even worse was that the entire area had recently burned in the Yellowstone fires of 1988, when  more than a third of the park was in flames. Today the trees (mostly lodgepole pines) are well on their way to recovery, but 30 years is not very long in a tree’s life. The trees are still skinny and short. They don’t provide much shade or shelter. So the hiker is completely exposed to the sun for the majority of the trip.

Essentially this hike has the feel of a desert journey more than the typical trip through Yellowstone. And that desert does not gradually gain elevation on its way to one of the park’s highest corners, either. It plods up and down and up and down the whole way, so that the trail feels like an ascent in both directions. Did I mention that in addition to an old forest fire robbing me of shade, a fire burning to the north was gradually filling the Lamar with smoke?

Now I’m sure, or relatively sure, that the reward would be worth the suffering. After all, isn’t that always part of our experience outdoors? There is always an element of sacrifice in any trip through the mountains. But sometimes I’m fully committed to that suffering, and sometimes it comes as a surprise, even though it shouldn’t. And sometimes a suffer-fest doesn’t sound as inviting as it has before.

Once I made it most of the way out there (it was more than 11 miles to my first camp), a few miles up Miller Creek from its confluence with the Lamar, which I didn’t see because I was walking high above where those creeks flowed, I realized Miller Creek was just a trickle. There were three-inch rocks protrufing more than halfway out of the water. I could barely find a spot to pump drinking water, never mind the fishing adventure I’d planned for.

So a head’s up: If you want (for some reason) to go way out to Hoodoo Basin, I’d do it in the early summer, I guess. And if you’re going the long way, through Yellowstone, prepare to suffer a certain amount for whatever rewards you might find once you get out there. Maybe you’ll see me there. PJH

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